Beats: Food

Cocktail Culture Beyond Mass Consumption

Local spirits can render iconic recipes unrecognizable–but maybe that's a good thing

5 min read

Illustration of two cocktails
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Thanksgiving began with a terrible Boulevardier. Known as the winter Negroni, a Boulevardier is equal parts bourbon, Campari, and sweet red vermouth. In the days before the holiday, my uncle, who was hosting, asked me for recommendations on the spirits and liqueurs; he figured that I’d have some small-batch, artisanal preferences–booze closer to the earth, sure to create a superior version of the classic cocktail. I had nothing, though. I recommended a pretty middle-of-the-road bourbon and a vermouth you could buy at any good liquor store, in the Ina Garten sense of the word.

On the holiday, he went with something small-batch that he’d been gifted, and the result was . . . amiss. With a cocktail recipe comprised of equal parts, that meant one of the ingredients had to be off. We tasted each component on its own, and it was that artisanal bourbon that burned on the palate a bit too long, giving the finished product its odd edges. The next glass featured what one might refer to as large-batch bourbon, and it was bitter, wintry perfection. I felt bad for preferring it.

This entire year has been big for my palate. Over the summer, I spent a day as a judge for the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition, tasting more than a hundred spirits and grading each on an Olympic-type scale. I swished the glasses, let each sit on my tongue, and spat. It was the culmination of a few years drinking cocktails at bars in every city I visited, touring distilleries, and interviewing the great minds of the spirits world. For the last few months I’ve worked at a wine bar, where I start every shift by tasting 16 wines from various regions, made with different methods and grapes. I’ve been learning to trust my senses in a new way. Which is why the taste of that Boulevardier has been lingering on my tongue.

At times, my principles as an eater and my palate as a drinker can be at odds. I want my classic cocktails to taste like classic cocktails, which means that I sometimes don’t reach for the local gin. Yet you can find me on Twitter, having enjoyed a conventionally prepared martini, telling people that after the revolution we’ll only drink “gorgeous small-batch amaros reflective of our local terroir.” And while I mean that, I also want to keep my Plymouth Gin martinis. How can I make my drinking habits as thoughtful as my eating habits? By design, drinking is a way of escaping the mind–even for those who make a living off of it.

For guidance, I turned to my favorite book on the subject of booze, By the Smoke & the Smell: My Search for the Rare & Sublime on the Spirits Trail, by San Francisco bar owner Thad Vogler. He writes of being put in charge of his first bar at an “ingredient-driven” Vietnamese restaurant, the type of place that credits farms on its menu. Vogler found it strange that Seagram’s 7 would be on the backbar of such an establishment, and this question became a mission: “Why would I sell this? Does this bottle share the aspirations of the kitchen next door? Does it share my aspirations?”

He goes on to take readers on his trips through France for Calvados, cognac, and Armagnac; Cuba for rum; Scotland and Northern Ireland for whisky, whiskey, and gin; then Oaxaca for agave spirits and Kentucky for bourbon. All the while, he asks that driving question, eschewing the products of multinationals and forcing the reader to remember that spirits are a product of the earth, of agriculture–the same as the produce we eat. Consistency might not be the highest goal. “That consumers expect something made from agriculture to taste identical year after year is a crime against nature,” he writes. There it is: the crime for which I felt guilty, especially considering the bounty of well-made, local options available to me.

New York state has invested heavily in craft beverages over the last decade. In the three years following the 2014 passage of the Craft New York Act, which eased restrictions around production and marketing, the state saw a 50 percent increase in the number of manufacturers of alcoholic beverages.

A Brooklyn bar that opened in 2016, Cardiff Giant, is even dedicated to serving only products made within the state. Certainly, this presents unique challenges–from maintaining a proper stock to serving the classics in a recognizable fashion.

“At a traditional bar I could get most of the liquor from just a few large distributors, but in a bar like Cardiff Giant I work directly with a bunch of small producers and farmers,” owner Steven Baird tells me. “So instead of a few big deliveries a month, I’m constantly receiving little deliveries, and trying to make it work around our schedule and theirs. As you can imagine, the hours we keep at the bar are vastly different from the hours a small upstate absinthe producer keeps.”

And, in a parallel to my Thanksgiving experience, they’ve struggled with finding ways to incorporate local products into well-known drinks. “Nothing seems to be plug-and-play off classic recipes,” Baird says. “A prime example is the Manhattan. When we opened, there wasn’t a “‘traditional’ sweet vermouth made in New York. There were several great vermouths made in New York, but they were all made for sipping and not really for mixing. After lots of trial and error, we ended up using a blend of two different vermouths to get where we wanted.” That’s not the kind of effort one can expect every bar owner to expend, and it will likely be a long time until a broad base of drinkers is open to funky versions of their go-to beverages.

However, beyond individual bars making extremely considered choices regarding what they stock, sustainability has become a topic of conversation in the spirits world. Claire Sprouse and Chad Arnholt, who together make up the Tin Roof Drink Community, travel the world giving precise and practical talks to those in the industry on how to decrease the carbon footprints of their bars through sufficient water usage, cutting waste, and quitting plastic. The winner of Bombay Sapphire’s recent Most Imaginative Bartender Competition was Chicago bartender Carley Gaskin, who made all of her entries zero waste. The 18th Room, a cocktail bar in New York City, has billed itself as “eco-friendly”: each drink ingredient is used completely and shared with the kitchen, and the menu changes seasonally to cut down on the environmental impact. While these changes aren’t happening at the production level, one hopes that smaller-scale trends will make their way back to the source. In fact, they already have for some makers of terroir-driven spirits like mezcal and rum.

Culturally, wine has always occupied a revered space–something worthy of time, study, money, cellars–but conscious connoisseurs have long faced the struggle of making its pleasures more accessible. This is the opposite problem spirits have, as anyone who’s downed a shot of well tequila can tell you. Whetstone Media’s new short documentary Wild Grapes shows, though, that a well-made beverage doesn’t have to exist simply for enjoyment, but can create connection between humans, and between humans and the earth. It’s a lesson that should be applied, in a way that echoes Vogler’s work, to all beverages.

“I think when you see distillers taking the care to designate single plots of origin, that is something, for instance in the wine industry, that has been a signifier of something to be revered. Deepening that curiosity and understanding doesn’t have to just be superfluous,” Stephen Satterfield, editor of the magazine Whetstone and star of the documentary, tells me. He holds up New York state’s current bounty as an example.

“In the Hudson Valley, there are 100-plus-year-old orchards that were salvaged from being turned into condos and Caribou Coffees. These cidermakers and the community rallied against it because there was some inherent appreciation in the region for the legacy of those trees and that cider,” explains Satterfield. “That’s a small example, but the larger point is that we should always be looking deeper into the things we consume, because everything we consume consumes the earth.”

While I’m mainly in control of my food, I leave most of my drinking choices in the hands of others and trust the tides of change to move in sustainable directions, as it seems they are. When I last ordered a martini, I told the bartender to select my gin for me. He went with the artisanal St. George Spirits Terroir, out of the Bay Area, which is expressive of California’s botanicals. It tasted just right: perfect for the holidays, and for after the revolution.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This is part of our “FoodBeat, which covered the social, political, economic, and technological implications of food production and distribution. For more dispatches, click the logo.